Crisis communication plan: every company needs one

Crises often occur unexpectedly, and sadly, no brand is safe from them. They may start small, but one third of all business crises spread to an international level within just a few hours. Therefore, PR experts should be available where a crisis occurs and where a brand’s target group is active. There’s a reason why crisis communication is such an important component of a good PR strategy and an extensive plan is mandatory for every business.

Crisis communication plans are the centerpiece of a crisis management policy. The advantages are obvious: a solid plan provides a dedicated communication framework tailored to the needs of a business. Good planning that includes an ordered sequence of responses during critical times can be vital for companies.

What makes for a good crisis communication plan?

To quickly and efficiently inform stakeholders of a difficult (or even threatening) situation, a dedicated strategy should be prepared ahead of time. As such, a crisis communication plan is an important part of crisis management.

Putting in place organizational forms, structures, and procedures provides companies with more confidence to act appropriately during hard times. This is important because business media is fast-paced and reports quickly, adding considerable time pressure. Most importantly, plans should guarantee speedy publication of information and ensure that a uniform message is shared across all platforms. The crisis communication plan is used to ensure the security of customers and staff, and protect a brand’s image in the long-term.

Definition: Crisis communication plan

A crisis communication plan encompasses a series of guidelines that are used to prepare a company for an emergency. This includes steps on how to communicate with the public and how to avoid problems from arising again. A crisis communication plan is based on the general rules of crisis management, prepared content, and communication strategies of possible scenarios. This ensures that the information reaches all stakeholders.

How to create a crisis communication plan

A written crisis communication plan ensures that relevant personnel understand the importance of crisis communication and are aware of the steps to take. The plan should focus on three phases: the time before, during, and after an emergency.

Before a crisis

You won’t have any influence on when, where, or how a company may be affected, but you’ll have control over how you respond to the situation. That’s why a crisis communication plan should be prepared, regularly reviewed, and updated.

Step 1. Examine the susceptibility of your business to certain types of crises and decide which ones to address

During the first step, you should collect information on all possible scenarios of things going wrong. Because it’s not easy to prepare for unexpected situations, here’s a list of different types of possible crises:

  • Natural disaster
  • Disruption to normal business processes
  • Violation of customer or staff rights
  • Product manipulations

It’s a good idea to evaluate the risk for each type of crisis possible, and to delegate responsibility. If you realize that certain situations are unavoidable, it’s worth introducing the necessary steps in advance.

Not every negative review online or offline qualifies as a crisis. Together with your investors, you should decide which situations must be treated as problematic versus critical. A problem can cause a stir, but doesn’t damage a brand long-term. A crisis, on the other hand, can cause long-term damage to your brand and lead to financial losses. Once you’ve defined what constitutes a crisis versus a problem internally, you’re able to design better plans and use your resources more effectively.

Step 2. Identify all parties involved and create a hierarchy for information exchange during critical times

Prepare a list of all investors and affected parties who should be kept up-to-date during a crisis. This list may include members of staff, customers, users, partners, investors, media, the government, and the public in general. Where a crisis is site-specific, the list should also include people who are close to a certain location. Make sure that all relevant contact information for each group is included in your plan.

The person or team who announces a critical situation may not be ultimately responsible for communicating it. That’s why your company should establish a hierarchy for information exchange internally. In this way, everyone knows who to turn to.

The sequence depends on the structure of your team. The first step could involve informing the CEO or president of the organization, followed by the communications department leader. The plan should include which information the respective parties receive including details on the situation and likely backlashes.

Step 3. Decide on a speaker and provide regular training for your team

Select co-workers with the right skills. Some may specialize in dealing with social media while others are confident in public speaking. A company should be aware of its employees’ strengths and make use of them during difficult times. In addition, you should provide regular training on how to handle problems when dealing with offline and social media outlets.

Step 4. Prepare a statement and answers to commonly asked questions

In every crisis people will have questions. Whether it’s a client’s legal counsel or a reporter, the public will want to know the truth. That is why proactive communication during a crisis is vital. To ensure as much transparency as possible, your team should focus on preparing information about the situation.

One of the first steps usually involves giving a statement. That’s why good planning includes preparing statements for pre-defined emergencies. When required, these statements can be modified to suit a particular situation. Statements should be brief and reassure the public that the company is taking the necessary steps to investigate the issue and will be sharing further information at a later point in time.

Crisis communication plans can help to identify possible questions and answers that may arise during difficult times. For example, if a natural catastrophe hits your headquarters, some common questions may include: “Was somebody injured during the incident?” or “How long will it take for the business to return to normal operation?”.

Step 5. Simulate emergencies internally

Simulations of emergencies show you how well you’ve prepared for one. Simulations can be run in conjunction with external providers. Exercises aim to train processes and stabilize the knowledge of individual participants. They’re also useful to update employees on relevant departments in charge of crisis response, accessibility, and useful resources. Further, you should schedule regular inspections.

Step 6. Keep an eye on public opinion

Use specialist tools to monitor and analyze social media responses. Using these statistical tools will enable you to predict crises before they reach their full magnitude and become known to the wider public.

Reactive communication is just as important. Every negative mention in social media should be addressed immediately. One part of your crisis management plan should be dedicated solely to your social media response. This ensures that a broader community spreads your message.

During a crisis

Don’t panic. While you may need to react quickly, you shouldn’t take inconsiderate actions. Organize your thoughts and consult your action plan and any prepared statements. This allows you to react according to the prepared guidelines.

Start where the crisis began. If a problem was first reported on Twitter, you should react on Twitter. Link to a public statement and share your message across other channels. Even if you’re not including all the facts, you should spread a public message. If you don’t react swiftly, you’ll lose control of public opinion. Additionally, you wouldn’t want to give the impression that your company is not taking matters seriously or is unprepared.

Step 1. Adapt communications previously prepared

If you prepared well, you can now reap the benefits. Use your previously drafted statements and adapt them to the current situation. Before you share your message across all communication channels, you should consider the peculiarities of the individual platform and adapt materials where necessary.

Step 2. Draft a simple message

For a more trustworthy message, a company should avoid technical jargon and focus on communication that’s easy-to-understand. Don’t overload your statement with unimportant details, keeping it to just three important points. The clearer your communication, the easier it will be for the public to comprehend it. This ensures that you’re not being misunderstood or are getting caught up in small details.

Step 3. Share the same message across all channels

While your message should be adapted to individual channels, its core ideas should be the same. Where the message is inconsistent across different types of media channels, you risk for your company being viewed as incompetent.

Step 4. Provide a secure platform for customer complaints

Your customers need a contact point. That’s why you should provide a dedicated platform outside of social media. This lets you monitor reactions more effectively and respond accordingly without running the risk of things getting out of hand. Don’t forget: traditional means of communication such as press conferences or interviews have significant advantages over social media and are sometimes the better means to overcome a crisis.

Step 5. Check the effectiveness of your measures

Analyzing your communication during a time of emergency is more important than most other times. You should monitor how your statements are perceived by keeping an eye on the reactions of stakeholders. Then you can react swiftly and adapt measures where necessary.

After a crisis

The follow-up to a problematic time is just as important as the preparation and in-crisis communication. One thing is certain: this won’t be the last crisis. Using your crisis communication plan should be followed up to incorporate insights gained during this time for future communication. In this way, you can raise your staff’s awareness of crisis management and generate best practices based on the specific experiences collected.

Step 1. Share the changes to be made

A statement is rarely enough. A company’s words should be followed by action, otherwise, the public won’t take your efforts seriously. Relief efforts for customers or changes made to your processes need to be made public in order to boost the reputation of your brand.

Step 2. Check your analyses

It’s important to take stock of a situation after an emergency has ended in order to revise your crisis communication plan or possibly even your entire PR strategy on the basis of your findings. Additionally, reports shared with stakeholders should be based on the information collected during the crisis.

Step 3. Update your crisis communication plan

Identify the weaknesses of your crisis communication plan afterward in order to rectify them and be prepared for the next emergency. Continuous adaptation is important to incorporate best practices for your business and consider new strategies.

Step 4. Share the latest draft of the plan with your team

Finally, you should share the revised version of your crisis communication plan with all co-workers online. Furthermore, all employees of your communications team should receive a printed copy. This ensures that everyone has a copy of the plan in case of technical outages.

Examples of a crisis communication plan

Some brands cope with a crisis better than others. They are the examples we can all learn from. It’s worth examining the mistakes that were made during a crisis. The following examples can be used as models for successful crisis communication.

Example 1: Southwest: Crisis communication plan for deadly accidents

Southwest is one of the most secure airlines globally. However, that’s not to say the company has never recorded any accidents. During one of its flights, an engine failure led to the death of one passenger – the first death on its aircraft. Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest, didn’t waste any time and immediately reacted to the situation by apologizing to the family of the victim. Afterward, he took down all adverts from social media and spoke to customers personally on the phone to offer support and advice. The company’s CEO was prepared for the situation and immediately expressed his sincere regret through his words and actions.

Example 2. KFC: Crisis communication plan for restaurants

Restaurant chain KFC faced a crisis back in 2018 when it ran out of chicken. The brand is known for its chicken dishes – so this was a problem. The PR team quickly swung into action and put a positive spin on the situation. It launched videos and tweets humbly apologizing for the shortage. This example shows that crisis communication is just as important for restaurants. Possible problems include food poisoning, unhygienic working conditions, and delivery issues that could lead to a food shortage.

Conclusion: a crisis communication plan helps to master difficult times

Crises can affect all companies, but luckily businesses can prepare for them and create a business crisis communication plan. Unprepared communications during a crisis present a high risk for companies. Therefore, businesses should create a comprehensive crisis communication plan which allows for secure and fast action during difficult times.

To master challenging times, it’s important for crisis managers to develop a fundamental understanding of their communication and coping schemes. A crisis communications plan protects the most important assets of a company: its reputation and brand. Businesses that invest in crisis management recover quicker during emergencies and save costs compared to those that aren’t prepared.

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